Wednesday, August 28, 2002

Clever Trevor

I’m not an aficionado of London politics but the announcement by Trevor Phillips, a member of the glorified County Council that is the Greater London Assembly, that he is not to be a candidate for Labour’s nomination for the London Mayoralty managed to sneak onto my radar screen.

As an aside, this coverage reflects my prejudice that London is treated with exaggerated respect by political commentators. Albert Bore of Birmingham has more real power than Trevor Phillips could ever hope for, but how often does he make the headlines?

Let’s be honest, What Mr Phillips has announced is that he will not stand for election to be a candidate in an election Labour strategists admit they are unlikely to win. In terms of actual political impact this is equivalent to David Melding announcing that he is unlikely to challenge Nick Bourne for the leadership. If you are saying “who? who?” take this as evidence that you are a normal human being.

However, your correspondent is nothing if not a follower of political tides. Since it is in the newspapers it must be important.

Let’s get this straight. Trevor Phillips is not running because:

“I have a young family, with children passing through a particularly vulnerable phase of their lives”

and he couldn’t ask someone to support him because he himself

“would never knowingly vote for a man or woman who put ambition ahead of family”.

How noble. Presumably Trevor would not want to support a father of teenage children and a young baby for a leading political role? eeerrrmmmmm…..

A crueller construct is that Mr Phillips has realised that if he stood, he might win the nomination against Nicky Gavron, but that’s not certain, and if he did win, a large proportion of the Labour party would bolt to Ken because Trevor would have won from the right. Trevor would be totally Dobsonned.

Trevor Phillips deserves respect because he is about the only survivor from the Dobson campaign (he was deputy Mayor candidate remember), He’s decided that a Labour candidate can’t win in 2004, but that “After Ken” or if the Tories win a spectacular victory in 2004, suddenly there will be political space for a Labour candidate.

Patience is a virtue, and I admire this move. First because Mr Phillips will improve is relations in the party- many members will appreciate that he is not forcing them to choose between the Party and Ken, Second because by leaving the door open to 2008 he is now the leading candidate for that election. Finally I admire it because it sidesteps a nasty fight which Mr Phillips would be unlikely to win.

One can only imagine the Labour campaign under Nicky Gavron would be like, since Ken Livingstone’s deputy Mayor shows absolutely no desire to actually win the election.

My personal preferred line up would be Banks vs Norris vs Livingstone. I prefer this for no other reason that it would be interesting.

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Like Murphy, I’m not bitter

Most of today’s papers cover the resignation of Simon Murphy as leader of Labour’s group in the European parliament, with the same level of interest that might accompany a small earthquake in Peru with no injuries. Who can blame them?

Most also carry the story that Michael Cashman is the most likely successor to Mr Murphy. As an ex-Eastender Michael Cashman is probably Britain’s third best known celebrity parliamentarian (Glenda Jackson MP and Lord Coe come first and second), but he is also a member of Labour’ national executive, a reliable Blairite, well regarded and, until this weeks news, he was about to lose his seat.

How so? How can a man so blessed be on the verge of political extinction and then be rescued and nobody even notice?

When Labour introduced it’s latest selection mechanism for the European parliament (no, please, wake up, it gets better) there was a sting in the tale. Sitting members could be automatically reselected, but in order to achieve gender balance either place 1 or place 2 on each regional list has to be taken by a woman.

In the last election Simon Murphy was No 1 on the west Midlands list. Michael Cashman was no 2. Neena Gill was no 3. Neena Gill is a woman, and therefore will be moved up the list this time. Given that Labour expects to lose the third seat, either because of EU enlargement or because of the bloody voters. Mr Cashman would be out on his ear.

So how convenient that one reliable Blairite decides to retire, guaranteeing another reliable Blairite gets to win near certain election. How convenient that the announcement was announced in such a way a consensus could be quickly reached that Mr Cashman would be a perfect successor as leader.

Even I recognise that this is a tedious story about regional lists. It is worth the thought for two reasons.

First, because there is no doubt that Simon Murphy will be rewarded for falling on his sword (House of Lords? Junior ministry? Quango?) and when he is, you’ll know why.

Second, because this is a new kind of politics. The Conservatives are currently having their own invisible battle over placing on lists for the Euro parliament, so are all the opposition parties in the devolved assemblies.

In a list system, if you won 4 seats in the last election seats 1,2 and 3 are safe. The 4 sitting members will fight like cats and dogs to get those slots. Slot 4 is like sitting under a guillotine and slot 5 is death by a thousand cuts.

How the selection system works in each party is revealing of the hidden tensions in the party. The level of central control, the ability of a small faction to purge people they don’t like or the smoothness of a fix, tells us as much about the state of mind of a party as a party conference.

These fights are a new development in British politics. They are conducted quietly and with little fanfare, yet they can represent huge shifts in personality and policy of our elected representatives. I don’t object to this (does anyone truly believe that the old method of electing Euro MP’s was in any way the expression of the will of the people? I doubt it) but if there is any value in websites like this, it is taking these arcane wars and opening them up to public view. The mainstream media certainly won’t do it.

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Tuesday, August 27, 2002

Euro a no go?

As I was unavoidably, indeed forcibly, separated from my computer over the Bank Holiday I didn't get the chance to comment on Derek Simpson's words on the Euro, Britain in Europe and forking over cash. I shall rectify this error now, though this will unavoidably lead me into looking at the wider landscape for a referendum, so those of a nervous disposition may want to look away now.

First of all, Amicus's internal politics are labyrinthine. The union is a merged union between the old MSF and AEEU . There are two general secretaries (one for each of the old unions) and each of the old unions still has its own governing council.

So Derek Simpson has been elected to take over the old AEEU section by the smallest of majorities. He has to deal with a union staff which is overwhelmingly hostile to him and a majority on his executive council who are directly opposed to his agenda. This means that his ability to deliver might be, shall we say, circumscribed.

This is perhaps best illustrated by the reaction of an Amicus spokesman to Mr Simpson's proposal:

"Derek Simpson was speaking in a personal capacity, as this union is Britain in Europe's biggest donor"

Whew. You can just taste the enmity.

So if Derek Simpson is going to achieve anything he's got to reach over the head of his executive and go to the membership. That way, his opponents look anti democratic. By doing this rather than relying on the hard left alliance that provided the backbone of his campaign, he might also stand a chance of gathering some of the Jackson team to an alliance of convenience. If he fails to do this his term as General Secretary will be noticeable only for division, infighting and factional warfare.

There are signs that Derek Simpson is prepared to compromise with some of those who opposed him and at least try to reach an understanding with No 10. His on the record comments have been rather politic, his comments on funding the party have been fare more moderate than the strident demands of the RMT’s Bob Crow or the GMB’s John Edmonds.

Indeed I have wondered whether his bargaining position might be, I will leave the party alone if you allow me to take what action I want inside the Union.

In this context, the battle over the Euro becomes a test of this compromise. Will the Government regard some funding of BiE as expendable in the hope of getting some give and take on public services and party funding? If BiE’s biggest funder will be allowed to walk away without a fight, what does this say about the wider prospects for the Euro?

Now, I have no great enthusiasm for BiE. Apart from anything else, I really hate their website. But with all the above, I would speculate that it's funding is secure until the end of 2003, as I wouldn't be surprised if Ken Jackson pushed a wedge of cash into BiE just before retiring and it waould also take some tme for a withdrawal of support to work its way through the union system. This would give it more than enough time to find other sources of money.

However, the reaction to this flap has been very quiet, which hints to me that when push comes to shove, No. 10 and the party is prepared to sacrifice BiE for calm on other fronts. Not exactly encouraging for Messrs Buckby et al.

The prospects for the Euro begin to look darker still when you combine this with the fact that Unison, the T&G and the AEEU are all likely to come out against Euro entry, So are some significant business leaders and a smattering of credible academics, economists and celebrities.
In these circumstances, the hope of the pro-Euro groups, that they could portray opponents of the Euro as extremists and obsessive begins to look more difficult.

In addition, the much vaunted "holiday effect" never happened. The current polling indicates that the No vote is around 12 points ahead of the Yes vote- even if the conditions are met. ICM did a very good poll a few weeks ago to show that at best, Euro supporters could expect a 1% swing in favour of the Euro. At that rate it would take about 20 years for the Euro to draw level in the polls.

So the No vote is solid, the No campaign looks well funded and well organised and many parts of the Labour movement will campaign for a no vote. On the other hand, Yes groups are on the defensive. I’ve yet to see any evidence of any powerful national or local campaigning from BiE, instead BiE seems to rely on taking shots at the No campaign and occasionally putting out press releases in the name of the great and good. This does not show they are confident of broad popular support.

To me, this points to only one strategy that could work for the Pro-Euro groups. It isn't pretty. The referendum has to be a choice between the pound and your job. Even this might not work without a more insecure economic climate. However, if they can generate hundreds of hard faced businessmen saying how they would have to take jobs out of the UK if we weren’t on the Euro, then it could shift hitherto intractable public opinion.

The only thing the anti Euro groups have to fear is fear itself.

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Monday, August 26, 2002

Oh no, more Mo....

Mo Mowlam wants to reform Westminster. Two bits stand out. First, she's still reminding us all that Tony Blair wanted her to stand as mayor of London, if only as an aside.

"The lack of real reform was brought home to me when I was being pressured by the Prime Minister to stand for London Mayor, a job leading one of the great cities of the world. When I actually looked at the job, it had few powers and no clear budget worth talking about: a non-job."

If it was a real job, we can only assume she would have gone for it. This tells us that the wonderful review of Momentum by Stephen Pollard has had no discernable effect.

Frankly, the rest of the argument is relatively sketchy. We need a constitution that sets out different powers for different levels of government. We need to push for more democracy in Europe, We need more regional government.

What surprised me was that Dr Mowlam (see Stephen, I did read the review!) suggested that one of the simplifications that could be achieved on the road to this better British constitution was the abolition of Parish Councils. My god, why? Unitary local government, by all means, but having a go at parish Councils just provides ammunition for those olde englande Tories, who see Parish Councils as a symbol of English virtues. Parish councils are harmless enough and in many ways, are a good thing, especially in rural communities, where they provide a connection with government which even a district council of 80,000 residents can't match.

So reform the constitution all you want, but please don't hurt the parish council's- it'll only upset the Telegraph to no discernable benefit.....

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Euro only so-so

A very interesting article on the politics of the Euro by Larry Elliott.

I agree wholeheartedly with the analysis, which spells out why the prospects of a Euro referendum are looking tougher and tougher. It also has a useful dig against spin doctor turned commentator David Clark, (who aside from his uncharacteristically good article on Iraq today, strikes me as a man who has spotted a market opening as a New Labour apostate and is exploiting it tediously).

Tomorrow I want to go into the politics of the Unions and the euro in a little more detail, as Derek Simpson's coments last week interested me, but I didn't have time to explore the detail of it at the time. Check back tomorrow!

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Amother push for State funding.

David Triesman, Labour's little known but influential General Secretary has made his preference for State funding of political parties in this interview in the Independent. It also makes clear that real cuts are being contemplated to Labour's staff, especially in the regions. This more or less confirms what I had suspected, that Labour was in a set of negotiations for extra funding, but now feels that it is unlikely that this funding will be made available.

If a State funding regime is proposed, I expect that all parties except for the Tories will support it. Labour will try and use this to throw some light onto the Tories still rather murky finances. The Tories in turn will oppose all state funding and suggest that this spending is further evidence of Labour's waste of taxpayers money.

I expect that this will be seen as good news by the Tories, who believe that in opposing State funding they will take a populist position with the support of the old Tory press. They will be right, but this issue will be relatively low in the public consciousness. In addition, with one bound, Labour would be free of the accusation that the are in coc to the Unions. My prediction- bad headlines for aawhile, but overall impact will be a wash.

More straightforwardly, the news of Labour staff cuts is further evidence that Labour's fabled on the ground operation will be less effective at the next election, with funds streched, staff numbers reduced and less local expertise in individual seats. Even here, the Tories have a long wa to go to improve their own campaigning structure and to be honest, I doubt they have the local staff to make a major impact. I see no evidence of a new generation of conservative organisers making waves in the 60 or so top targets for the Tories.

Local political organisers are amongst the most under-recognised groups in Politics. They tend to work in relative isolation, trying to bring together local activists and get campaigns going at times when MP's are in westminster, councillors are residing in their own corridors of power and young PPC's are still in their full-time jobs. Historically, even psephologists have more or less discounted their efforts. However, As turn out declines, their influence increases and all political parties pay heed to the effectiveness of Liberal Democrat campaigners in attracting voters who wouldn't endorse a fifth f the official LibDeom manifesto to their cause. Probably the best evidence for this was in the 2001 election, where in the most marginal seats there was actually a swing towards labour, a tribute to the effectiveness of their field operations team.

If the Tories could establish a Target seat strategy and make it work now, rather than worrying so much about their candidates, they might be a bigger threat than their poll position suggests. Otherwise, they should take little comfort from Labour's financial difficulties.

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